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Another Tory Leak Reveals ‘Party Power Motive’ Behind Unitary Authority Plans

Published on: 30 Sep, 2020
Updated on: 30 Sep, 2020

Map showing those non-metropolitan areas of England that are already unitary authorities. None are as populous as Surrey.

By Martin Giles

Another leaked communication from a Conservative county council leader confirms the party political motivation behind the proposals for county unitary authorities, say political opponents.

The Guardian reports the leaked letter from David Williams, leader of Hertfordshire County Council and also Conservative group head at the County Councils Network (CCN), clearly shows the party political power plan in “simplifying” local government by removing district and borough councils.

Cllr Williams, like Tim Oliver, leader of Surrey County Council, is among local government leaders frustrated at the decision to delay the reforms.

The Guardian says that in the letter, Cllr Williams told Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to “ignore the political implications [of reform] for both Conservative councillors and MPs … and in particular our new red wall MPs …

“It is no surprise to me that many of those celebrating reports of delays are Labour and Liberal Democrat district councillors who regard the prospect of strong county-based unitaries as threats to their strongholds.”

And Cllr Williams added: “Conservative representation at the county level remains strong but even in solidly Conservative counties like Surrey, only just over a third of local councillors within district and borough councils are Conservatives.”

The Tories control two-thirds of seats on all county councils and only 48% of seats on district councils. Cllr Williams urged the PM to ignore resistance to the abolition of district councils from district councillors, saying they are “interested in self-preservation”.

“It is no surprise so much of the vitriol aimed at [Sec of State] Robert Jenrick for driving a unitary agenda has come from those sources obsessed with self-protection above good governance and a chance to transform our society for the better.”

Cllr Hannah Dalton

But Cllr Hannah Dalton (Res Assoc, Epsom & Ewell), organiser of the Residents Against a Single Surrey Unitary (RASSU), said: “Cllr Williams has written to the Prime Minister in his capacity as chairman of the County Council Network, which is a cross-party, non-partisan group representing county councils.

“Now his letter has been leaked he is claiming it was private correspondence despite it being written on a CCN letterhead. This is an unacceptable abuse of his position.

“Cllr Williams has used this ‘private’ letter to talk up the need for unitary local government and with it the potential gains this would bring to the Conservative Party. This is clearly politically motivated.

“But he seems unclear on some of his facts when he says Surrey is ‘solidly Conservative’. In Surrey, just more than a third of borough councillors are Tory, and of the 11 boroughs only three are in overall Conservative control, so his view of ‘solid’ seems to be somewhat different to that of the electorate.

“A referendum for people to have their say on the unitary proposal would cost upward of £600k and I doubt many taxpayers would support their money being used for this purpose. Additionally, SCC claim that in [their] resident survey ‘most people’ support their proposal for a single unitary and Tim Oliver will no doubt claim this is their mandate to proceed.

“But further investigation suggests the survey is fatally flawed, making the results invalid.

“There is no conclusive evidence that a single Surrey unitary would be more financially efficient. Surrey’s own business case has seen the savings reduced from £135 million to £127 million, at a stretch.

“There is a huge difference between efficiency and capability and that is something on which no one has been able to provide a business case.”

Cllr Tim Oliver

Cllr Oliver (Con, Weybridge) said: “The motivation behind a single unitary authority in Surrey is to give more power to residents through engagement and devolution to a much more relevant local level, and to deliver a more effective local government system, one that is simpler and cheaper for the residents of Surrey. I would hope all political parties would agree with that view.

“With any reorganisation, Surrey County Council would, of course, take views from all groups in Surrey, including residents, businesses, education, health and social care providers, the voluntary, charitable and faith sectors and community groups. We would expect there to be a full public consultation once the government had considered any plans.

“Our work has shown a single unitary would deliver huge savings, … just a change in structure would save upwards of £30m a year, and with services transformed in a new authority that could reach well over £100m a year.

“With the current, and looming, economic picture the pressure is going to come quickly to be more efficient and the savings we could deliver could protect vital services for residents.”

Cllr Fiona White

County councillor Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West), said: “The comments from David Williams come as no surprise. I firmly believe the proposal for huge unitary authorities is politically driven. I am surprised Cllr Williams is so keen on throwing district and borough councillor colleagues, even Conservatives, under the bus to achieve the outcome he seeks.

“I have been consistent all the way through in saying such wide-ranging changes to local councils should not take place without a wide and open consultation with all residents who would be affected and not just organisations such as town and parish councils or residents’ and community groups. It must be a proper consultation with a willingness to change the outcome as a result.

“I don’t believe a single unitary authority for the whole of Surrey would be the best answer for local people either financially or democratically. People should be able to feel a local link with the council that provides their services.

“A single, county-wide authority would be too remote and not accountable to local communities throughout Surrey.”

Cllr Joss Bigmore

GBC acting leader Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch) said: “I don’t think anyone has ever been in doubt at the party political motivation behind SCC’s single unitary plan. That they failed to consult anyone outside their cabal shows this is a Tory scheme for Tory gain.

“They are losing the game so they are ruthlessly trying to change the rules. Thankfully, the widespread outrage in the boroughs and districts has apparently caused pause for thought, although I’m sure this plan will be resurrected quickly if we don’t elect different people next May.

“The elections will give every resident a say in how they are governed. They can vote Conservative for an unaccountable monolith, or vote for local independents who will ensure their voice is heard loud and clear.

“R4GV have always said there are substantial financial savings to be made within the current two-tier system, and the budget pressures we face as we emerge from Covid necessitate us finding them. But a single super-unitary designed to maximise political power and not driven by solid business practice will never achieve the financial gains it should.”

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test One Response to Another Tory Leak Reveals ‘Party Power Motive’ Behind Unitary Authority Plans

  1. John Hadwin Reply

    September 30, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    To make a case based on democratic principles might be worthy of notice, but one founded on one-sided political advantage is beneath contempt.

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